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Ancient Greece: A Seafaring Empire

The ancient Greeks built ships with two particular functions in mind: for transporting goods and as a naval force at war. The coastlines provided an advantageous position to encourage the growth of trade and transportation to lands and islands beyond the Mediterranean, vastly expanding their network and resources. Equally significant in ancient Greek society, naval technology continuously advanced with the intent to protect citizens and trade routes, ultimately becoming some of the finest ships and weaponry in the history of the ancient world.

The topography of the ancient Greek mainland primarily consisted of rugged mountains and rocky soil that left little arable land, proving land travel tedious, complex, and expensive as Greek roads were rough and unpaved. Needing to look elsewhere from the terrain for economic opportunities, early civilization inhabitants crowded the Mediterranean shores (Humphrey et al., 2020). The Mediterranean Sea was critical in transportation, trade, and travel in ancient Greece. With nearly 2,000 miles of coastlines and many offshore islands, natural harbors, and inlets made sea travel the most efficient means of transporting goods and people. Sailing seasons were largely predictable, with favorable winds from the seas to encourage maritime transportation's prosperity and help stimulate trade growth (Casson, 1994). While ships and seafaring provided numerous advantages, it was seasonal and at the mercy of the weather. Most ships were laid up from early November to late March, when powerful storms and dangerous seas were frequent (Humphrey et al., 2020).

The environment of the Mediterranean allowed ships and seafaring to operate with greater ease and speed of trade. It allowed them to establish new cities that strengthened and expanded their empire. During 700-200 B.C., the Greek civilization flourished in size, population, and wealth, creating a greater need for foreign trade (Amit, 1965). As the Mediterranean topography called for sea travel, the ancient Greeks ultimately built ships for two purposes: to transport goods and for naval power in war. For this reason, great care was taken into the wood and materials used to build them to ensure safety, strength, durability, and flexibility (Casson, 1994).

Figure 1: Map of the Mediterranean (Bennett, 1875)

All ships were made of wood and used oars and sail power. The ship's function determined its design; cargo vessels were broader and deeper, with room for goods, crew members, and passengers, while warships were long and narrow (Casson, 1994). The woods used to construct ships were primarily silver fir, fir, and Syrian cedar, as they were lighter and did not decay. Shipbuilders began with the keel, an intense beam of wood providing the primary support for the vessel that runs the length of the ship’s bottom. The keel of a cargo ship was made of fir, with a false keel of oak when hauled out, while the warship requires solid oak to withstand the stress of being hauled out to sea. The ship's outer shell was constructed of planks joined edge to edge to assemble the hull, or outer body of the ship, before inserting framing. Many ships included a layer of lead for the underwater surface of the ships to protect them from marine life and sea elements that could destroy the wood. Further, bronze fastenings were considered more practical and used for shipbuilding since they have a longer lifespan than iron and maintain their integrity underwater (Humphrey et al., 2020). Ships typically had one sizeable square sail in the middle that varied significantly in size and design, which was made of linen and occasionally reinforced with leather. Although sails were advantageous, they could not go out in lousy weather or move when the wind was calm.

The ancient Greeks overcame their dependence on favorable winds by using galleys, which were ships powered by sails and human rowers powered to operate when winds were low or came from the wrong direction. The first galleys were shallow and unsuitable for making long trips and transporting heavy loads. As Greek civilization and trade demands increased, the merchant ship was much deeper than the galley to carry as much cargo as possible. However, it moved much slower due to its considerable size. The average merchant ship was built between 100-115 feet long and could carry up to 500 tons (Casson, 1994). The number of rowers needed to propel a ship of such size would take up valuable cargo space. Therefore, most merchant ships ultimately depended on weather conditions and wind direction for the ship's speed. The galley proved most useful for short trips near the coastline, but only sailing ships had the power to move heavy loads of cargo over long distances (Humphrey, 2020).

Figure 2: Pictorial representation of ancient Greek trading vessel (n.d.)

The ancient Greeks developed an extensive trade network along the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, to the shorelines of Asia Minor and the Black Sea, and lands as far as Spain. Many goods flowed freely through the ancient world with the use of Greek shipbuilding (Casson, 1994). Ceramic vessels and cloth sacks carried wine, olive oil, food, grains, flax, luxury items, and precious metals. Ships were also built to transport stone, which was heavy and difficult to transport but was in great demand for the construction of religious, political, and public places (Harris, 2015). As the Greek civilization continued to grow and flourish, so did the need for goods, transportation, and protection.

So extensive was seaborne trade that the need for naval power increased. Building a navy was expensive for any ancient state. However, they were necessary as a robust line of defense along the coastlines in protecting trade and commerce from attack and enemy invasion. The earliest Greek navy vessels were used primarily to transport armies in a boat rowed by 50 men, with 25 oars to each side, a square rig sail, and a steering oar in the back. (Morrison, 2016). This penteconter galley could have a hull as long as 125 feet and was light as it was designed for maximum speed (Foley & Soedel, 1981). Greek naval warfare depended on developing specialized warships, as the greatest threat was being rammed by other boats in battle. As a result, the ancient Greeks built their vessels for speed, maneuverability, and as a weapon.

The most notorious specialized navy vessel was called a trireme, which had 170 rowers on three levels and featured the addition of the ram, a bronze piece designed for the front of the boat to inflict damage on other ships during battle (Rankov, 1981). The trireme could fracture and disable enemy warships by ramming into other ships. This ship was long and slender, highly maneuverable, and able to make quick turns, as agility was highly influential in battle. The trireme was built with lighter wood to assist with speed but rotted much faster than regular timber. As a result, it was hulled to shore each night to keep the hull dry when possible (Humphrey et al., 2020). Triremes were only built to accommodate the rowers and naval equipment. Therefore, it traveled relatively close to shore as the rowers had no room to sleep or provisions necessary for a large crew (Haas, 1985). Warships became increasingly crucial to the defense of the ancient Greeks, dominated by the city–state of Athens.

Figure 3: Diagram of ancient Greek trireme ship (n.d.)

In 480 B.C., the Athenian fleet defeated King Xerxes of Persia in a great naval victory at the Battle of Salamis. In the first great naval battle in history, the heavily outnumbered Greeks tricked the Persian fleet into maneuvering through the straits of Salamis, a territory with which the Greeks had much experience. The Greek commander, Themistocles, ordered the triremes to attack, ramming and sinking many of the Persian vessels and boarding others to attack hands-on, ultimately defeating the Persian army in an incredible victory (Rankov et al., 2000). This battle was a turning point for Athens, beginning the city-state’s ascendency over the other sovereign states of the Aegean (Hale, 2016).

Before the Persian wars, the Greeks generally relied on private funding for the war, though it proved inadequate as they saw the need for an advanced navy out of fear of future attacks. In 478 B.C., Greek maritime states came together to form the Delian League, a powerful naval confederacy dominated by Athens, turning an alliance into an empire to protect against future attacks by the Persian empire (Larsen, 1940). The vessels of the Delian League were a single joint navy run by the allied states but primarily run by Athenian citizens and triremes as they had the strongest navy and significant funding (Pritchard, 2015). Much of Athens’ wealth was derived from the silver mines at Laurion in Attica, which was used to build the ships and fund the fleets that defeated the Persians, and went on as a source of funding for the Delian League (Humphrey et al., 2020). Athens claimed to have saved Greece against the attack of Xerxes, having had the most substantial fleet, and their position of power in the Delian League provided them with the resources to rebuild their city and remain the strongest of the allied states. Athens used their powerful navy to establish a seaborne empire that dominated the Mediterranean, remaining the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean until the conquest of Alexander the Great in the late 300s B.C. (Burke, 1978).

Figure 4: The Battle of Salamis (n.d.)

Ancient Greek naval technology brought maritime expertise to its peak, establishing vast trade routes that enabled the ancient society to grow and flourish to coastlines far beyond. Designing ships capable of transporting large and heavy loads of cargo, the ancient Greeks built a network of goods and resources that allowed them to acquire more territory and power on lands and brought naval technology to a level of sophistication that was more advanced than any contemporary culture or civilization.

Bibliographical References

Amit, M. (1965). Athens and the Sea: A Study in Athenian Sea Power. Belgium: Latomus, revue d'études latines.

Burke, E. M. (1978). The Greeks At War In the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C. Military Affairs, 42(3), 142–143.

Casson, L. (1994). Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. London: British Museum Press.

Foley, V., & Soedel, W. (1981). Ancient Oared Warships. Scientific American, 244(4), 148–163.

Haas, C. J. (1985). Athenian Naval Power before Themistocles. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 34(1), 29–46.

Hale, J. R. (1996). The Lost Technology of Ancient Greek Rowing. Scientific American, 274(5), 82–85.

Harris, E. M., Lewis, D. M., & Woolmer, M. (Eds.) (2015). The Ancient Greek Economy: Markets, Households and City-States. Cambridge University Press.

Humphrey, J. W., Nikolic, M., Sherwood, A. N., Oleson, J. P. (2020). Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis Group.

Larsen, J. A. O. (1940). The Constitution and Original Purpose of the Delian League. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 51, 175–213.

Morrison, J. (2016). Greek and Roman Oared Warships 399-30BC. United Kingdom: Oxbow Books.

Pritchard, D. M. (2015). Public finance and war in Ancient Greece. Greece & Rome, 62(1), 48–59.

Rankov, N. B., Morrison, J. S., Coates, J. F. (2000). The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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Kyra Nelson

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